Joker is too cowardly to be provocative. Anchored by a committed Joaquin Phoenix performance, director Todd Phillips imagines a Gotham City where everyone is desperate, and you can practically smell an ongoing trash strike. Joker has always been Batman’s primary antagonist, and since he has no adversary here, the film amounts to little more than a series of grievances. Joker steals more from The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s terrific meditations of loneliness and despair. The trouble is that Phillips pulls his punches, so his film needles the audience, daring you to be upset about it. This is the cinematic equivalent of bullying.
Phillips and longtime cinematographer Lawrence Sher do not present Gotham as an urban hellscape. Instead, this city is reeling from decades of neglect. You could say the same about Arthur Fleck (Phoenix), a clown-for-hire who barely keeps it together. Phoenix is known for his physical transformations and this is no different. Here he is, sinewy and emaciated, and his face contorts in uncomfortable ways: Fleck suffers from a condition that causes him to laugh at inopportune moments, and he chokes his way through one cackle after another.
Fleck has little support in his personal life. His mother (Frances Conroy) is ailing from an unspecified illness, and she may be delusional. He relies on social services for medication, but his case worker tells him funding has been cut. Left with few prospects, Fleck fantasizes about a better life. He sees talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) as a father figure, one who helps him launch his stand-up career. The screenplay by Phillips and Scott Silver shows how all these parts of Fleck’s life fail him. Only a newly acquired handgun gives him any sense of self-worth.
At just over two hours, Joker feels longer than its runtime. This is because Phillips keeps turning his attention away from plot developments, instead opting for yet another slow-motion sequence where Fleck dances to a tune only he can hear. These shots are no substitute for psychological depth, and nearly all the scenes with dialogue portray Fleck as a victim. His mom lies to him, strangers are mean to him, and nothing is his fault. Phoenix’s performance is an impressive feat of physical strain—Fleck is unlike past iterations of the popular character—except he only shows his commitment to the performance instead of having us connect to it.
When Fleck finally springs into action, killing three businessmen on a subway, Phillips frames the scene to suggest that Fleck had no choice, that he was pushed into it. Later on, after Fleck fully transitions into Joker, Phillips uses cheap physical humor to rob grisly violence of any serious moral reckoning. But between all the mayhem and antihero glorification, Phillips does not want us to forget that we are still watching a superhero film.
There is a subplot involving Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), Bruce’s father, who is not a billionaire philanthropist, but an impatient businessman with little sympathy for the little guy. His arc dovetails Arthur’s in a way that’s depressingly predictable, as if Phillips dutifully crosses items off an origin story checklist. Another minor character is Arthur’s neighbor Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a would-be romantic interest. Like Thomas Wayne, that subplot resolves in a way that lets Fleck off the hook. The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver did not shy away from how their antiheroes related to women. Joker is too timid for that because, underneath all the grittiness, Phillips would rather have fun than think about his subject.
A more rigorous film would further explore Fleck’s darker, dormant impulses, rather than settling on his mental illness and persistent victimhood. The trouble is that kind of curiosity would require a consistent point of view, and Joker prefers the facsimile of provocation over the real thing.
Joker opens Friday in theaters everywhere.